Virtual Reality and “Reality”

I was at Les Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles, France. They also have a VR Arles Festival with a competition for VR productions. Winner is this year Treehugger: Wawona by the London design studio Marshmallow Laser Feast. One becomes a water particle and travels into a giant sequoia tree from the roots to the top. The production also won the Storyscapes Award at the Tribeca Film Festival 2017. The installation involves haptic elements (a backpack, gloves, and a fake tree).

The same studio also made In the Eyes of the Animal where you explore the woods through the eyes of different animals. Which made me think of what the VR pioneer Jaron Lanier says about VR, that it makes you see reality in a new way. Philosophers talk about a ‘multiplicity of worlds’ and VR allows us to experience that. Reality is plural.

Virtual worlds and the Infosphere

This week I learned about information philosophy, most notably the work of Luciano Floridi. In this day and age of data and digitalization, he develops an ontology and ethics based on reality-as-information. Virtual worlds geeks will appreciate how the professor also refers to Second Life (and other virtual environments), for instance in his book The Fourth Revolution. He writes about “the infosphere”, “inforgs or information organisms”, being “onlife”.

When I think about Second Life or similar worlds, I consider them as a kind of cyberspace, but the interesting thing about the notion of Infosphere is that the cyberspace is just a part of it. Even so virtual worlds are revealing as these are environments where people acutally live. These days the digital and virtual are blending more and more with the physical reality, inspiring information philosophers to develop an object oriented approach on the basis of “information”: humans, organizations, animals, plants, objects can be studied as information objects with specific functions or methods.

I’m reading now The Fourth Revolution and The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Information.

Floridi is also a must-follow thinker on Twitter.

Argument maps, continued

As I mentioned in the previous post, I’m looking for 3D or VR argument maps. In the meantime I found out about Noda, which is a fledgling application for HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. It’s available on Steam.

On Twitter, Roy Grubb suggested his own software, Topicscape, which is a 3D visualization tool. For 2D online argument mapping, I found Rationale.

I’ll experiment with all these tools.

Looking for 3D or VR argument maps

Fascinating: IBM trained an algorithm in debating humans. There’s still some way to go, but the results were pretty impressive. I don’t know about IBM’s Project Debater, but there is an interesting history of philosophical research into argumentation. This inspired practices such as argument mapping. Like mind maps and concept maps, argument maps can become pretty complicated. I could imagine 3D argument maps could be interesting, but as yet I did not find software enabling 3D or VR argument maps. Maybe I should give it a try using some virtual environments such as Second Life or High Fidelity, but it would even be nicer to build browser-based tools or apps. Just imagine the possibilities of live group sessions using immersive argument mapping.

Philosophy and tech: speech acts, ethics

(‘Philisophy and tech’ is a series of posts in which I discuss very briefly philosophical issues I encounter reading stuff about technology)

Last week Google published ethical principles guiding its AI development and research. Richard Waters of the Financial Times quotes AI-professor Stuart Russell at the University of California, Berkeley, who says that Google has to think about the output of their algorithms as a kind of ‘speech act’. What he means is that when people use their AI-enabled tools, such as searching texts or images, the responses generated influence the way people look at the world and ultimately change their behavior and convictions. It’s not about ‘mere talking’ but about doing stuff in the real world. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a lot about speech acts. An interesting take on Google’s new AI ethics can be found at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Also watch professor Russell’s talk at TED2017.

“VR-worlds need to enable writing emails in order to take off”

I attended a Fireside Chat in the virtual world High Fidelity with Philip Rosedale and Peter Diamandis. Dr. Diamandis is founder and executive chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation, best known for its $10 million Ansari XPRIZE for private spaceflight.

High Fidelity is not as easy to access as an app for the Oculus Go mobile headset. I had to use my Oculus Rift and download the High Fidelity interface client, which went not totally smoothly. But the result was totally worth it.

Rosedale and Diamandis used full sensor tracking, their avatars moved around very naturally. They also had 3D-bodyscans, so those avatars looked realistic as well. In the room attended more than hundred people, moving around, sitting or standing freely. Asking questions, getting the person spoken to looking at you, it all made virtual and real blend into one real experience. At one point Rosedale (or his avatar) effortlessly drew a graph depicting an exponential curve out of thin virtual air.

I previously attended some Oculus Venues events which are very nicely engineered into well-run social experiences, but they lack the interaction between performers on stage and the public I experienced here.

About the content: Diamandis eloquently presented his Abundance-thesis. Energy and water scarcity will become something of the past, oil and coal as energy resources are on the way out – give it ten to twenty years. Politicians trying to stop technology will be overthrown or their nations will go bankrupt, the combination of smooth automatic language translation, blockchain and crypto-currencies, virtual reality, e-residency such as pioneered by Estonia give access to the opportunities of a globalized and exponentially evolving world in contrast to staying stuck in a local and linear mindset.

Rosedale seems as bullish as ever about the virtual space, but also realistic: we need a high enough resolution to be able to read and write emails easily in those spaces in order to make them really ready for broader audiences.  Remember the smartphone: you could do about everything with them right from the first iPhone and so that was when generalized adoption started to happen. Also, a VR-room will have to be able to handle a thousand people in order to organize stuff such as TEDx-conferences – High Fidelity is working hard on that.

Here’s the recording of the event:

Philosophy and technology, a list

Which philosophers are particularly relevant when studying and using “new” technologies? Here’s my list based on my readings these last few weeks.

Rosi Braidotti, Metamorposes. Towards a materialist way of becoming

Andy Clark and David Chalmers, authors of The Extended Mind. Andy Clark also wrote Natural-Born Cyborgs.
Mark Coeckelbergh, author of New Romantic Cyborgs.

Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir and, regarding the Panopticum, Jeremy Bentham
Donna Haraway, writer of A Cyborg Manifesto.

John Searle about the Chinese Room thought experiment (and commentators on his ideas) This is one of the topics in a Philosophy of Mind course I’m reading and watching.

Quite some stuff about cyborgs and ‘monsters’ upsetting the classical oppositions human-machine, man-woman, human-animal, real-unreal. It’s a very incomplete and arbitrary list but based on stuff happening in technology, society and culture.

Events agenda

There are so many virtual venues these days! Here are some interesting events across multiple virtual spaces – for the exact time, click on the links. This is a very personal selection, there’s a lot more that might be interesting.

High Fidelity continues the tradition of virtual intellectual “salons”

What I love about virtual worlds are the incredible smart and visionary people one can meet there. This totally applies for High Fidelity, a young and cutting edge virtual world (think decentralized architecture, tokens, blockchain, VR-enabled, avatars who are responsive to their real life users). Founding father Philip Rosedale had this very inspiring chat with Kent Bye, the host of Voices of VR Podcast.

They and their audience of fellow geeks had an in-depth discussion about virtual worlds, virtual and augmented reality, blockchain in virtual worlds and psychology of virtual worlds. What I particularly like is that the chat was not limited to esoteric virtual world tech stuff, but tackled fundamental evolutions such as the emergence of an “Experiential Era”.

In this way High Fidelity continues the great tradition of virtual intellectual “salons“.

I found out about this video via New World Notes.

The limits of blockchain, for now

An interesting take on the use of blockchain in the mass consumer markets by Adam Frisby, CEO and lead developer of Sinespace, a Unity-based MMO and social VR platform: on VentureBeat he explains “why blockchain isn’t ready for primetime“.

“As it stands, blockchain is caught between three competing objectives: fast, low-cost, and decentralized. It is not yet possible to make one chain that achieves all three”, Frisby says. A post written by someone who has first-hand experience in dealing with payments in game environments.

Note that the Blockstack-project I posted about is not based entirely on the bitcoin blockchain, presumably for some of the reasons discussed by Frisby. I’m not sure how exactly they improve on the blockchain.